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Jewish World Review Oct. 13, 2000 / 14 Tishrei, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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When Ideology Collides With Facts

It’s time for the peace demonstrators to face reality -- ISRAEL WAS REELING from a series of blows last Sunday that led many in that country to believe the entire peace process was on the brink of complete failure.

After pocketing concessions from an Israeli prime minister who had gone further than anyone could have dreamed toward satisfying their ambitions, the Palestinians had seemingly told Ehud Barak and the rest of Israel that their hatred for the Jewish state was still their guiding ideology and the driving force behind their politics.

Though he struggled to put a brave face on his continued hope for peace, a stunned Barak seemed to acknowledge as much on America’s Sunday-morning network-news talk shows.

Israel’s own peace movement, Shalom Acshav (Peace Now), sensed that it wasn’t a good day to be rallying behind the flag of Oslo.

In the immediate aftermath of a Hezbollah terrorist raid from Lebanon, in which three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped, and the fiasco of the Arab sack of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, they canceled their pre-Yom Kippur rallies.

But here in Philadelphia, these developments did not stop a troop of intrepid demonstrators from showing up at the Liberty Bell to voice their call for continued Israeli concessions on Jerusalem and to carry on with the peace process as if nothing new had happened.

The approximately 100 people came to sing about peace and to call for an end to the violence as a contingent of print and broadcast journalists gathered to record their thoughts.

A few children, presumably let loose early from Sunday Hebrew-school classes, got to wave homemade signs calling for peace between Jews and Palestinians, and calling on both sides to “share” Jerusalem.

And an egalitarian chorus line of rabbis — most in their best Yom Kippur whites — got to solemnly intone prayers for peace and against violence.

Using the holiday that would start a few hours later as a backdrop, one of the speakers, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, an associate professor of religion at Temple University, told her listeners that “prayers are not enough.” It was incumbent on Jews to make atonement for the sins Israelis and Jews had committed against the Arabs.

The “sins” she enumerated consisted, in part, of the following: expelling Palestinians from their homes in 1948; keeping them in refugee camps; and claiming sovereignty over Muslim holy places.

Alpert conceded that the “Palestinians also bear a moral responsibility for the conflict.” But, she added, “It is not for us to enumerate their wrongs against us, numerous though they may be.”

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, a former leader of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, used his turn at the microphone to express a hope that, despite recent events, Israel would not go back on Barak’s reported concessions on Jerusalem.

“We need to affirm that the holy places need to be shared,” said Liebling. And, in a further gesture of self-conscious evenhandedness, the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer was read on behalf of both Jewish and Arab victims of the violence. In the last line, where the text reads ve-al kol Yisrael — “and for all of Israel” — the leaders of the vigil added ve-al kol Ishmael, in honor of Arab victims.

While I have to admire anyone who sticks to his or her principles and would never, ever, question the right of any Jew to speak out on a Jewish issue, I walked away from the event shaking my head about the incredible self-righteousness of the speakers and wondering what the demonstration had accomplished.

Coming only two days after the second of two well-attended and noisy pro-Arab demonstrations outside of the Israeli consulate in downtown Philadelphia and days before the organized Jewish community could pull itself together to organize a rally to defend Israel, the leftists had got their story of Jewish self-criticism and sympathy for Arab aspirations in Jerusalem out to the local media.

It is also worth noting in passing that the organizers of the Sunday rally did not bother to inform the one Jewish weekly newspaper in the city of their plans to invite coverage, but had successfully placed a notice of the rally (with a helpful phone number for more information included) in the city’s largest daily paper.

Alpert’s point about the duty of Jews not to speak up about Arab offenses was theologically interesting but politically debatable. But her assumptions about what constitutes Jewish sins were appalling and, in some instances, downright falsehoods.

All Arabs who fled Palestine in 1948 were not “expelled” by Israel. It was the Arab powers and terrorist groups that kept the refugees in camps to use them as pawns in their wars against Israel. And to behave as if Jewish claims on the Temple Mount are an insult to Arab rights isn’t evenhanded, it’s simply backward.

In their eagerness to downplay Jewish suffering and Jewish rights while highlighting the alleged victimization of Israel’s foes, the demonstrators once again proved the truth of the axiom that universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.

Though I don’t doubt their good intentions or the sincerity of their pleas for an end to the violence, the net effect of the Jewish demonstrators’ effort was to give the secular media the idea that the Jewish community is not prepared to defend Israel against the latest onslaught of media images that have — unfairly, in my view — cast it as the villain in a morality play in which innocent Palestinians are again the victims.

What was doubly curious about all this was how much of a contrast these true believers in the Oslo process and Israeli concessions were to Israeli popular opinion.

Almost everyone in Israel — from left to right — seems to be questioning their assumptions about Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. The sustained attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians by Palestinian Arab mobs — aided and abetted by armed Palestinian police and Arafat’s Fatah Party activists — had continued into their second week with increasing violence. Arab citizens of Israel had joined in the rioting, attacking police stations in the Galilee and elsewhere.

On Saturday, a Palestinian mob had desecrated and demolished — stone by stone — a synagogue and yeshiva at the place believed by many Jews and Arabs to be the burial place of the biblical patriarch Joseph in the city of Nablus (biblical Shechem). This occurred following the Israel Defense Forces’ evacuation from the place because its defense became untenable.

On the same day, the Hezbollah terrorist organization conducted a raid over the border with Lebanon in which three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped. In short, the peace process had become a war process.

In recent years, the Jewish right has been justly accused of failing to acknowledge reality as they called for holding onto all of Judea, Samaria and Gaza without offering a realistic notion of how the Arabs living there might be accommodated inside a democratic Jewish state. But it’s time for the left to confront a similarly unpleasant truth. The peace partners whom they have been counting on don’t want peace, nor are they reconciled to the existence of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state. Their hatred is nurtured by an education system that delegitimizes Israel and is undiminished by Israeli goodwill or Barak’s far-reaching concessions.

All of the prayers for peace and Jewish breast-beating about supposed Israeli sins can’t wish away the images of Arab mobs chanting “death to the Jews” and trashing a holy site, just to ensure that Jews will never again pray there.

It may be more satisfying to keep repeating the slogans about peace, but after years of telling ourselves that Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords were meaningless aberrations, it’s time for the true believers on the left to start facing reality.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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